Film & Television · Poetry

Happy Birthday, Emily Dickinson! Celebrate the Poems and the Poet, On Demand


A solemn thing – it was – I said –
A Woman – White – to be –
And wear – if God should count me fit –
Her blameless mystery –

Later this week, December 10, will be Emily Dickinson’s birthday. The reclusive poet was born 190 years ago in Amherst, Massachusetts, the town in which she lived and died, and that she rarely ever left. Dickinson was an enigma. As she aged from girlhood to spinsterhood, she became more and more eccentric, dressing only in white and speaking to visitors from behind her closed bedroom door. Most of her relationships, some of which were complex, long-lasting, and even romantic, were carried out through letters. 

Although we have nearly 1,800 of her poems, only 10 of them (and those dramatically edited to suit the conventions of the era) were published in her lifetime. After Dickinson’s death, her younger sister Lavinia, whom Emily had charged with destroying her papers and correspondence, discovered the trove. They were published four years later, and have never been out of print.

Both her prolific work and her reclusive life have inspired readers and writers for more than a century. Multiple biographers have attempted to unravel the mysterious woman, some taking lines from her poetry for their titles, like Lives Like Loaded Guns (Lyndall Gordon, 2010), My Wars Are Laid Away in Books (Alfred Habbeger, 2002), and These Fevered Days (Martha Ackmann, 2020). The puzzle is how a timid, self-isolated woman, presumably a virgin, could write so passionately and, at times, erotically.

Wild nights — Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile — the winds —
To a Heart in port —
Done with the Compass —
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden —
Ah — the Sea!
Might I but moor — tonight —
In thee!

In 1976, William Luce’s one-woman play, The Belle of Amherst, earned its star Julie Harris a Tony Award (her fifth). Of Harris, who prodigiously portrayed 15 different characters, The Wall Street Journal wrote, “With her technical ability and her emotional range, Miss Harris can convey profound inner turmoil at the same time that she displays irrepressible gaiety of spirit.” In the play, Emily invites the audience to tea and narrates several decades of her unusual life. Her solemnity, gaiety, and, above all else, serenity are on display as she candidly speaks of loves lost and inspiration found. As to her solitary ways, she explains, “I never had to go anywhere to find my paradise. I find it right here.”

The play, helmed by director Charles S. Dubin (best-known, at least by my generation, as director of television’s Lesley Ann Warren Cinderella), was later filmed by PBS before a live audience. The production is both theatrical and intimate, and available now on Amazon Prime.

Two additional Dickinson experiences are available through Amazon, both starring Emmy- and Tony-winner Cynthia Nixon. 2016’s A Quiet Passion, directed by Terence Davies, follows Dickinson’s life from her schoolgirl days through her emergence as a poet until her death from “Bright disease” (a nineteenth century diagnosis of kidney failure) at age 56. The film is long and literate, delving not only into the artist and her work, but also commenting on the rights of women (or lack thereof) in the 1800s, life’s dreams and disappointments, and the near constant specter of death. Nixon, as usual, delivers an intense and satisfying performance. And Jennifer Ehle, the BBC’s penultimate Elizabeth Bennett, is delightful as Lavinia.

2017’s My Letter to the World is a documentary, narrated by Nixon, that examines the poet’s life and work according to some new, alternative (and, frankly, more interesting) literary theories. Directed by Solon Papadoulos, the documentary includes interviews with critics and historians, as well as behind-the-scenes footage from the making of A Quiet Passion. It’s an engaging companion to the film, although some of the speculation it features is a bit over-the-top. 

Speaking of speculation, the immensely entertaining Wild Nights with Emily dares go where no American lit professor has gone before (at least none in my poetry classes back in the ‘80s). The 2019 film, directed by Madeleine Olnek, imagines Emily’s more-than-sisterly relationship with her brother’s wife, Susan. In real life, Dickinson did dedicate several loving poems to her sister-in-law, and wrote about her with evident devotion. 

To own a Susan of my own
Is of itself a Bliss —
Whatever Realm I forfeit, Lord,
Continue me in this!

Molly Shannon, Saturday Night Live’s “superstar” parochial school student Mary Katherine Gallagher, is marvelous as Emily, feisty and determined. She’s the polar opposite of the prim and perpetually depressed Dickinson we’ve been conditioned to imagine. Olnek, who is primarily a stage director, adds fanciful bits of theatricality, including characters who break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience, an animated fabric “cat,” and superimposed lines of poetry. Wild Night with Emily is available to stream on Hulu.

The latest — and by far most entertaining — dramatic interpretation of the life of the beloved and probably misunderstood poet is available to binge on Apple TV+. Dickinson, a comic drama (or “dramedy”), was created by Alena Smith and stars Oscar-nominee Hailee Steinfeld as the young, opinionated, downright rebellious Emily. Season one includes nine episodes, each named for one of Dickinson’s poems, and season two will premiere in January, 2021.

Contemporary music and dance, along with lush cinematic flights of fancy, punctuate Emily’s story. (This approach is much like Hulu’s recent The Great, although it feels more organic here.) Some of her poems are interpreted quite literally, including one of her most famous:

Because I could not stop for Death – 
He kindly stopped for me – 
The Carriage held but just Ourselves – 
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

Death was a recurring theme in Dickinson’s poetry. In Dickinson, it’s personified by a mysterious and inarguably sexy voodoo priest, who reassures her that as much as she feels like a fish out of water in her strait-laced family, “You’re the only Dickinson they’ll remember in 200 years.” He’s a slyly seductive presence in young Emily’s life — until she encounters genuine and lasting loss. 

She decides to live, but she won’t conform. “She’s so insane,” a fellow Amherst teenager observes. “Of course, she’s insane,” insists her companion. “She’s Emily Dickinson.”


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